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That’s just your opinion, man

trump system

The planets, I learned when I was 11, “dance and weave behind the sun”.

I still remember that phrase because it made an enormous impression on me. It was magical. Musical. Mythical. And, of course, made up. But I didn’t know that until years later.

In that moment I pictured an immense and fiery Pied Piper playing a thermonuclear recorder, leading a string of little planets on a merry jig through the cosmos. It’s such a fantastic image that it remains with me today, lingering as a small doubt about the veracity of the science I learned later. When I see Mercury or Mars on a dark midnight, a pagan, feral part of me wonders if the other planets are lined up behind them, ready to start the night’s wild rumpus.

This weekend a less dramatic but much more real procession took place in cities around the world. The “March for Science” saw the more rationally inclined hit the streets to protest against Trumpian know-nothingry, the perceived sidelining of science and the woolly mammoth in the room, climate change.

Inevitably, the various marches seem to have been good-natured affairs.

In my very limited experience, scientists tend not to want to impose themselves or their ideas on people the way politicians and columnists do. Dogmatic certainty is fundamentally unscientific, and a march by scientists always runs the risk of unravelling into a large group of solitary wanderers licking their thumbs and rubbing out things on whiteboards: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? Well, the question of ‘when’ is tricky because it seems predicated on time being linear, which it isn’t, and when you say ‘want’, are you claiming that humans are the conscious originators of our desires or are you allowing for the possibility that we might be compelled by social structures or hormonal commands originating in the gut? Oh, you want science now? OK, well, ‘now’ is a contested idea but could we suggest that, given what the peer-reviewed literature currently shows, we believe that we want science to happen at the event horizon of the future into which we are always tumbling? Is that fair?”

Still, they made their point. Reflected in their clever banners and glittering logic I saw my own dismal scientific education. I saw people I admired but whom I could not understand because I had been taught that our solar system is a conga line.

Siyabulela Xuza launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen

Then again, when I consider the extraordinary trajectory of Siyabulela Xuza, who launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen in the Eastern Cape – inventing a new kind of rocket fuel en route to studying at Harvard and having an asteroid named after him – I have to concede that I might not be able to lay all the blame on my education. Maybe some people are just good at science and other people are, well, me.

Which would be fine if those of us who are not good at science just touched our forelocks and accepted its findings. But, as the marchers hoped to remind us, we’re doing that less and less.

The vast intellectual unravelling of the post-factual era has reached the very building blocks of the known universe.

With depressing regularity, the great equations of physics are being met and dismissed with a vastly more powerful and destructive equation: the creeping belief that everything is an opinion, and, since all opinions are equally valuable (or worthless), everything is equally true. The Earth is round? Well that’s just your opinion, man, and if you tell me I’m wrong then you’re bullying me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that science is under severe attack. But, unfortunately, I don’t think you can be a rocket scientist and defend it, either. In fact, scientists might be the worst possible defenders of science because they are comfortable with uncertainty and are willing to admit what they don’t know. When a know-nothing tells them that up is down, they will have to reply, “You may turn out to be right, but at the moment, up is up.” Which, to an internet-addled paranoiac, sounds like unconditional surrender.

It’s popular to label anti-scientists as stupid or rage-addicted reactionaries, but I believe that they are driven by a much more powerful, and therefore much more dangerous, energy. I believe that they are compelled to act as they do by the deep and ancient narcissism of our collective inner child.

Almost every great claim our species has made over the millennia has been made to soothe that child, to make the bad feelings go away. There, there, little one. The sun revolves around you. Death isn’t final. An immortal parent (who will never leave you) made all of this, just for you, and loves you, always. And anyone who says different is a meanie and probably deserves to be hit.

Like a spoiled child, the anti-scientist is always right, even if older and wiser people show him that he is wrong. Their evidence is proof of how wrong they are. You are not wrong because I disagree with your findings: you are wrong because you disagree with my feelings.

If you’re a scientist, I thank you. I don’t understand what you do, but I do understand what will happen if you stop doing it. And conga lines are the least of it.

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Published in The Times

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The fault is in our stars

MarsA misunderstanding was inevitable.

The French delegation spoke very little English. The South African politicians who sat across the table spoke a little French but were just at that moment pressing lobster thermidor into their mouths and so their words were muffled.

What they did manage to say, however, was that the were offering the French nuclear industry a “sweet deal in return for lots of dough, as long as it’s not half-baked”.

The French muttered oaths – “Gauloises Blondes! Audrey Tautou!” – but the message seemed clear. Baking, dough, sweetness: the South Africans wanted their new nuclear power stations built by French confectioners.

And so, just before everyone retired to the firepool for a late-afternoon paddle, President Jacob Zuma wrote an IOU note on a napkin for R500-trillion, to be paid off in monthly instalments over the next 5,000 years or until Jesus returned, and work began immediately on 25 state-of-the-art nuclear reactors made of custard, pastry and almond flakes.

The initial results were encouraging. A delicious aroma wafted across the republic and Eskom workers delighted in nibbling off corners of infrastructure during their mid-afternoon blood-sugar slump. But soon it all went terribly wrong.

During a routine replacement of the fuel rods (uranium-enriched baguettes) in all the stations, technicians accidentally used gluten-free brioches and all 25 reactors melted down faster than an SABC board member being questioned about academic qualifications. Within seconds, glowing custard was leaking into the nation’s groundwater and sending plumes of radioactive yumminess into the sky.

Panic-stricken South Africans tried to flee the pastry apocalypse. An elite few phoned their old friends the Guptas but their calls kept going to voicemail. The rest headed north but were met at the border by Zimbabweans holding signs reading ‘Xenophobia is a bitch, ain’t it?’

In desperation the government considered occupying Lesotho (Mangosuthu Buthelezi still had his invasion maps from 1998, albeit slightly stained with coffee rings and covered with doodles reading “President Buthelezi”). But Helen Zille objected to this plan, saying that she was already queen of a mountain kingdom and didn’t want competition.

At that very moment Jacob Zuma’s Whatsapp pinged.

putin-riding-bear-601x368

“Hello Djekob! Eetz mee, Wladmr Pyootn!”

It was his old oil-wrestling coach Vladimir Putin with an intriguing offer: if Zuma would lease South Africa to Russia as a dumpsite for toxic waste (mostly investigative journalists arrested for investigating and gay people arrested for being gay) Russia would build a giant spaceship that would allow all South Africans to travel to a new home in deep space. To make the spaceship familiar and reassuring it would resemble a gigantic Hilux taxi with a vast plastic rear windscreen emblazoned with “Dreamlover”, and it would take them anywhere they wanted to go.

But where? Most South Africans wanted the shortest journey possible and opted for the moon but the EFF rejected this, saying that the moon was “historically white and has always looked down on Africa”. They suggested the red planet, Mars, but an outraged Blade Nzimande accused them of trying to steal the legacy of the South African Communist Party. However, in the end the Tripartite Alliance grudgingly agreed that Mars was the best option since it so closely resembled “the glorious bald head that would be created if Soviet science had somehow achieved the impossible dream of cloning the love-child of Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Putin”.

Two months later the Dreamlover was complete.

55 million South Africans were told to fasten their seatbelts, half a million obeyed, and the countdown began. Unfortunately it had been assigned to a person who had only done Numerical Literacy at school and so it went “10, 9, 4, OneDirection…” but after an awkward silence the Dreamlover blasted off. A new era had dawned for the nation.

The long journey to Mars was not without incident. Just days after the launch a scandal erupted as President Zuma was accused of overspending on security upgrades to his section of the spaceship, including asteroid-proof windows, comet-proof thatch and Public Protector-proof financial reports.

Six months into the journey someone claimed they had seen a white dwarf through a telescope, and AfriForum accused them of hate speech, saying it was racist to refer to the dwarf’s race. (Scientists explained to AfriForum that a white dwarf was an astronomical phenomenon, at which the Democratic Alliance said that the Nkandla costs were an astronomical phenomenon. But nobody was listening to them any more.)

“Let me write an annoyed tweet about this at once!”

The Dreamlover landed on Mars on 27 April, 2024, and at once the newly elected President Veuve Clicquot Razzamatazz Zuma (a cousin of the first Zuma) tasked the nation with building a vegetable garden. The EFF refused, saying that it was a disgusting repeat of the Jan van Riebeeck story, and threatened to physically destroy the vegetables, possibly in some sort of delicious quiche.

A group of disgruntled white people who had kept to themselves on the journey said they were tired of being marginalized and were going to go off and be marginalized by themselves. But soon their space-mielies shrivelled and died (there was even less rain on Mars than in Mafikeng, and their crops turned to popcorn before they could be harvested). Worse, they had moved out of wifi range and could no longer get News24 on their iPads, so they grudgingly returned to the mothership.

As years turned into decades the people began to long for home. During the day they found that they could comfort themselves by blaming the government, just like in the old days; but at night it was harder. They would lie awake, gazing through telescopes at the distant Earth, remembering the sound of the wind and sea, and wondering.

Would they ever return, perhaps once the radiation had subsided in 50,000 years, leaving nothing but a warm, million-square-kilometer vetkoek? Could they start again and this time truly provide a better life for all? If they had to do it all again, what would they do differently? And then they sighed, switched off their little government-approved Razzamatazz night-lights, and thought: there’s no place like home.

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First published in The Big Issue